The worst thing punk did was institutionalize anger. Turning emotional vitality into an aesthetic is, of course, an age old occurrence. Whole universes of music are built on the practice. As listeners we often know what we’re supposed to feel rather than what we actually do. Drawing lines between manipulation, affectation, performance, sincerity, and emotional rawness in any musical context is probably a misguided errand (the word “subjective” comes to mind), not to mention counterintuitive to the nature of music as art. But there are times, in the right hands, when the presentness of emotion in music is too visceral to really dump away into categorization and instead the sounds seem to be there in service of an emotional purpose rather than the other way around.
Punk’s connection to anger is often vacuous, for it’s own sake, and superficial — buried in the intrinsic disruptiveness of atonality, speed, and bluntness. It’s rare for rage to build itself into a three-dimensional space from a preoccupying and meaningful foundation, obtain a higher purpose, and feel like it has a tactile significance. On their sophomore LP, Sundowning, Vancouver-based hardcore outfit, Nü Sensae achieve a kind of Athenian rage and wield it with a fiery, righteous assurance, delivering one of the most pulverizing and transformative, not to mention satisfying, rock records of the year.
Sundowning arrives two year’s following Nü Sensae’s debut, TV, Death and the Devil and it’s their first as a trio after recruiting guitarist Brody McKnight who’s put to good use counterbalancing the force of bassist Andrea Lukic’s kamikaze shrieks. The group weaves a tightened web of spindly, detuned doom and gloom guitar riffs, chugging basslines, and an unyielding, unrelenting drum assault, veering from downhill-sloped 80s hardcore, brief Sonic Youth-esque guitar noise workouts, and free-ranging 90s post-hardcore with a tinge of percussive, black silken psychedelia. Penultimate cut and momentary stop off, “Say What You Are” is even reminiscent of the sleepier side of tribal rock group, Snoman.
But Sundowning succeeds in how the band puts all these elements together as a calcified unit. There’s a tightened grasp on stealthy, exacting build-and-release songwriting dynamics that culminate into some of the most jaw-dropping zeniths of rock freakout in recent memory. Lukic’s vocals are the driver here. When she’s not screaming her head off in a frenzied, near-black metal howl she sounds like Kim Gordon on an “I Wanna Be Your Dog”-esque tear. After a hob-knuckled guitar intro on “First Born,” “Swim” gallops headlong into motion, the trio jackknifing violently from one clench-toothed riff to another before exploding upward with a wordless vocal scree.
The group is deadly in its ability to restrain itself, finding nooks and crannies to fill with unexpected song dynamics, before leaping forward. On “Orange Roses” the trio dives between a twanging, roundabout guitar and drum back-and-forth and a roaring firestorm of vocals and eyes-wide riffs before they just bash their instruments together near the track’s middle. The first half of “Whispering Rule” is a noisy tribal workout, building into a pummeling guitar torrent, which does an explosive stop-start trick near its end, “Burnt Masks” broils with some doomy, rhythmic drum fills, and “Curdle of Cream” is the closest Lukic’s vocals come to melodic before a screech comes hurdling up the pitch.
It’s when Andrea Lukic throws herself fearlessly into the chaos on “Spit Gifting” and the aptly titled closer, “Eat Your Mind,” that Sundowning reaches it its ferocious peak, relenting with tearing, mind-erasing screams in a sort of cathartic baptism of noise, the band reaching devastating levels of sonic tumult. The former track builds from a chugging lull near its middle into a storm of six-string lacerations before Lukic charges into it headlong. And “Eat Your Mind”‘s stomping, meltdown centerpiece is sheer lizard-brained carnage. Nü Sensae are one of the most formidable punk outfits working right now and Sundowning is the work of a band whittling themselves down to occupy the very tip of fury.